Wednesday, June 26, 2013

New home, new lives for Boise Hawks' Cuban defectors

New home, new lives for Boise Hawks' Cuban defectors
Published: June 26, 2013 Updated 2 hours ago

Yasiel Balaguert, Carlos Martinez making impact during first year in Boise.


BOISE — As the lights of Cuba disappeared behind him, and he could
barely see the stranger who was captaining the small, two-engine boat,
Carlos Martinez started to worry.

It was three years ago, and Martinez spent 17 hours on that boat in the
Caribbean Sea, trying to defect from Cuba to the Dominican Republic.

On one side, there was a chance to play baseball for a living. On the
other, if he were to be caught, he faced possible arrest and the
probable end of his playing career.

"Big problems - and I didn't know how to swim,'' the 22-year-old
Martinez said through his Boise Hawks teammate, catcher Rony Rodriguez,
who translated.

Martinez's defection was successful, as was that of his friend, Yasiel
Balaguert, who did so by leaving his team hotel in Mexico during a
baseball tournament in 2010.

Both were signed by the Chicago Cubs on Dec. 30, 2011. Today, they are
relishing their first seasons with the Hawks and excelling early.

"After going through everything, knowing you have to leave your country
behind, to be signed, have on this uniform and play in front of a good
crowd, it finally feels real,'' Balaguert, 20, said through Boise
pitching coach David Rosario.

As fellow countryman Yasiel Puig creates international headlines and
crushes major-league pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Balaguert and
Martinez have kept a close eye on Puig's rise this baseball season,
providing them with inspiration along the way.

Maybe the inspiration comes from Puig's early stats for the Dodgers:
.422 batting average, seven home runs in his first 20 games.

Or maybe it's the contract he signed last year: $42 million over seven

"It's so great to see, because he's a friend of ours. We stay in
touch,'' Balaguert said. "Hopefully we'll get the chance to shine like
that and put our names with other great Cuban players.''

So far, Puig hasn't been the only Yasiel making an impact on his team
with a strong build, a strong outfield arm and a strong bat - the
6-foot-2, 215-pound Balaguert is hitting .231, but has a Northwest
League-high 13 RBIs, while no one else on the team has more than five.

Martinez (6-4, 230) has made three relief appearances and owns a 2-0
record with a 1.59 ERA in 5‚ innings.

"They've done a great job,'' Hawks manager Gary Van Tol said. "They love
to play the game, and I'm sure with their story and situation, where
they come from and where they're at now, they wake up every day feeling
pretty fortunate. And that just filters into the clubhouse.''

With that passion for the game, Balaguert and Martinez have quickly
adapted to the Hawks' clubhouse, often seen not just joking around with
each other, but their teammates as well. The Cubs have stressed the
Spanish-speaking players to speak English as much as possible, and have
tutors at each stop to help. At times, teammates like Rodriguez, whose
parents defected from Cuba to Miami before he was born, offer a helping

"They're great teammates,'' Rodriguez said. "They went through a lot,
and we understand what they went through, and we're always trying to
make it easy on them, translating for them or whatever they need. I want
to help them.''

In 1991, Van Tol got a taste of what young ballplayers like his pair of
Cubans must go through to play professionally in the United States,
along with where they came from.

After his Canadian team lost in the Pan-Am Games in Havana, Van Tol
explored the surrounding area, rather than sulk in the hotel.

"It's beautiful, but it's under Communist rule - you know, those kids
basically risk their lives to get here,'' Van Tol said. "We're pretty

The Hawks' clubhouse has its own family feel, but leaving Cuba meant
leaving family behind - Balaguert, who signed for a $400,000 bonus, has
been able to bring his parents to Miami, but he hasn't seen his sister
since he left.

Martinez signed for $250,000; his parents remain in Cuba, though he has
a sister who lives in Miami. He said when Father's Day came around June
16, it wasn't easy - he hasn't seen his father in three years - but he
made his Hawks debut that day in Eugene, getting the win.

"I definitely miss my parents, of course, but they love that I'm here,''
Martinez said. "That's the price a lot of us have to pay to be here.''

With Martinez "anchoring the middle of our bullpen,'' as Van Tol said,
and Balaguert as an outfielder "with a bright, bright future,'' the
Cubans are taking their first steps toward their ultimate goal:
major-league success, like Puig.

"It feels like we're living our dream,'' Balaguert said. "It's amazing.''

Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_Southorn

Source: "BOISE: New home, new lives for Boise Hawks' Cuban defectors |
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